Report lays bare how children are being exploited
Young people are increasingly being targeted online by criminal gangs, new research shows.
During the pandemic, gangs moved their operations into busy public places like supermarket car parks to avoid arousing suspicion during lockdown, according to the report by Barnardo's.
The organisation says it has seen a rise in children being groomed by criminals online, lured in with promises of "easy money" at a time when many families are struggling to put food on the table.
Youth workers and frontline child criminal exploitation (CCE) practitioners say many young people have been persuaded to carry drugs while dressed in delivery driver uniforms or high vis jackets - allowing them to avoid detection as seemingly legitimate workers.
In 2020, the number of children assessed by children’s social care of being at risk from gang involvement increased from 10,960 to 14,700.
Meanwhile, those involved in trafficking rose from 2,490 to 3,010, and children involved in drug misuse increased from 23,710 to 29,170.
In 2019-20 nearly 7,000 children were arrested for drug offences. A further 2,063 were charged with weapon offences.
Barnardo's says that while many of these children will have been groomed and exploited, there remains a "lack of clear understanding or consistency" from services such as police or social care in identifying and supporting victims.
As part of its new Exploited and Criminalised report, the charity made a Freedom of Information Act request asking police forces about the number of CCE victims in their areas.
It said that although the majority of relevant police forces (30 out of 47) replied to the FOI request, only one police force was able to provide any significant data on the criminal exploitation of children in their area.
Most said the only way to fully answer the request would be to carry out a prohibitively expensive manual search of arrest reports, the chairty added - while some even asked what crimes it considered to be CCE.
Barnardo's is now calling on the UK government to make urgent changes to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to include a legal definition of child criminal exploitation.
It also wants an increase in funding for youth services and for the Bill to ensure every local area develops a strategy to specifically tackle CCE.
Michelle Lee-Izu, interim co-CEO of Barnardo's, said it was "alarming that agencies are still too often failing to identify victims, even when there are clear signs of harm".
“Our services are supporting children as young as nine who are being criminally exploited, and we’re deeply concerned that without government action the problem will spiral even further out of control," Lee-Izu added.
"These children are victims and need the right support to help them recover, rather than being criminalised. Yet evidence from our frontline workers shows children and families can experience months of exploitation, fear and violence before help arrives.
“We know children who have already had a tough start in life are particularly vulnerable, including those in foster care and residential care, and children who have been excluded from school.
“That’s why we’re calling on the UK government to change the law so that children who are being exploited by gangs are identified and supported early.
"It’s also vital that this month’s Spending Review includes long-term, sustainable funding for local areas to invest in youth services, counselling and other support for young people at risk.”